‘Maalai Nera Malipoo’ movie review: A slow-burn, yet stirring tale of a sex worker

Filmmaker Sanjay Narayanan and actor Vinithra Menon do not attempt to merely document the life of a sex worker; they peer into the labyrinth of the lead character’s conscience

June 13, 2023 05:21 pm | Updated 05:37 pm IST

Vinithra Menon in Maalai Nera Malipoo

Vinithra Menon in Maalai Nera Malipoo | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

We are used to seeing particular people in the society depicted in a certain way in cinema; in Tamil cinema, to be more specific. Sex workers, for instance, are portrayed as objects of lust or pity-evoking people. There may be a few exceptions (like the Anjali Ameer character in Ram’s tenderly poignant Peranbu). But we seldom get to see their stories; how their daily lives are, what goes through in their minds, the thoughts they think, and their joys and sorrows. Perhaps this is a reflection of the society at large too. Despite being recognised as the oldest profession in the world, their occupation is often subject to scorn. So, Tamil cinema’s mainstream filmmakers have shied away from telling their stories.

The streaming world, perhaps, frees filmmakers to explore stories and themes seldom explored before. It also lets them experiment with narrative techniques that aren’t too familiar. Sanjay Narayanan’s debut feature, Maalai Nera Malipoo, streaming on Aha, serves as an example of this supposition.

Maalai Nera Malipoo
Director: Sanjay Narayanan
Cast: Vinithra Menon, Ashwin, Dhinesh Pandiyar, Samyuktha
Storyline: A struggling sex worker has to make ends meet during the COVID-19 pandemic for herself and her son
Runtime: 119 minutes

Before we enter the world of the protagonist, Lakshmi (played by an affecting Vinithra Menon), we see a drug deal happening in a Telugu-speaking area. Consider this as a butterfly flapping its wings. Its cataclysmic repercussions affect Lakshmi at a later stage. (You don’t always have to show a literal butterfly flapping its wings to convey the idea of the butterfly effect.)

Butterfly, however, is not the first insect that comes to mind to describe Lakshmi. She is more of a spider who has to keep repairing and rebuilding her precarious and vulnerable web. She is a struggling sex worker who wants to shield her school-going son (played by Ashwin) from the harshness of her world. When he asks her what she does for a living, she comes up with some half-cooked story about a call-centre job (“Which is why I have to work in the night,” she tells him). When he asks who or where his father is, she gives him inconsistent answers. Once she tells him he is a filmmaker; on another occasion, she tells him he is an engineer. 

It is also interesting to note that one of her clients is indeed a filmmaker. What makes it interesting is her relationship with him. He doesn’t seem like just another client. He is someone she regularly meets, so there is a sense of comfort she shares with him. She turns on the radio player in his car. He trusts her with his wallet. At a time of desperate need, she asks him for help. Kerala-based sex worker and activist Nalini Jameela, in her autobiographical book The Romantic Encounters of a Sex Worker says, “Sometimes the client and the lover merge and blur, making it difficult to distinguish one from the other.” Lakshmi’s relationship with this filmmaker harks back to these lines.

Sanjay (who is also the film’s writer) and Vinithra make Lakshmi a character rich in complexities. For instance, she is a financially struggling person. But when her filmmaker client offers her a cover of charity money, she gives him a handjob and takes only what she’s owed as payment. She is a person with self-respect. But for her son’s comfort, she sacrifices her dignity. 

Noydup Dorjee’s camerawork, on the surface level, seems grungy and realistic. But some of the shots (like the one where Lakshmi walks in a dark subway with light at the end of it) lend emotional depth to the drama. Hrithin Shathivel’s non-intrusive, minimal music (of mostly keys) adds to the mood. 

We don’t really know how Lakshmi gets into sex work. We get a few flashes of her past in the beginning. But they never form a full-fledged flashback. Instead, at various points of the film, we see surreal, dream-like montages indicative of her past and evocative of her psyche. Sanjay does not attempt to merely document the life of a sex worker; he peers into the labyrinth of his character’s conscience, which makes Maalai Nera Malipoo a fascinating watch.

Maalai Nera Malipoo is streaming on Aha

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